A sermon preached by the Rev. Kit Lonergan on All Saints' Sunday, November 6, 2011
Christ Church Andover
All Saints’ Day and Baptism
November 6, 2011
Revelation 7:9-17, Psalm 34:1-10,22, 1 John 3:1-3, Matthew 5:1-12
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts together always be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. AMEN.
When I was in 8th grade, I listened in on a conversation that a few of my friends were having about their Confirmation/ CCD class at a Catholic Church. They were ecstatic about how awesome the last class had been, and told me and others that as part of their class, they read the lyrics of Billy Joel’s song, Only the Good Die Young. As they played the cassette over and over on a boom box, I listened to the lyrics of the chorus: “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints, the sinners are much more fun…”. And I thought, well, if the saints are crying all the time, I’d probably want to align with the laughing sinners too! I have a feeling that whatever the intent of the teachers of playing that song for my peers was in that CCD class, it probably didn’t go as planned. I felt like a laugher, so obviously sinner it was for me!
We have lost touch with some of the language that used to be so common in church circles. The word ‘saint’ is one of those. In Catholic tradition, the saints were those who interceded on our behalf to God, or to Jesus. We prayed to them so that they might pray for us. In Anglican history, and in the Episcopal Church, we encounter saints a little differently. We have two sorts of saints in a way: first, those who we celebrate on most days in the calendar year—the men and women who have impacted the life of the Church by their willingness to live out boldly the life of Christ in their own time and context. They are our Holy Men and Holy Women, and if you ever stopped by a Wednesday morning service here at Christ Church, those are the folks we celebrate and preach about. These men and women have been elected and voted on by our Church, and span the whole gamut of people—all races, nationalities, vocations, denominations, gender, you name it, but what they have offered us is a glimpse into the redemptive work of following Jesus—oftentimes in conflict with the prevailing notions of right and wrong, in and out or holy or secular. Their legacies are the blueprints often for our own faith journeys, for very few of them were without sin, and I think that several of them were probably laughers instead of criers.
The other set of saints we commemorate is the communion of the saints. In the back of every prayer book is a Catechism—which used to be memorized and recited publically to gain admittance to Confirmation, but now is simply a wonderful guide to understanding what we mean when we affirm our faith through our words and worship. In the Catechism, they define the communion of saints as: “The whole family of God, the living and the dead, those whom we love and those whom we hurt, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer and praise.” The whole family of God, the living and the dead, those whom we love and those whom we hurt, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer and praise. It’s not those other people who are saints now. It’s us. All of us and all who have gone before, and all who will come in the future. It’s the people sitting next to you, and those who didn’t make it to service today. It’s those who have died, and those who are just about to be baptized this morning. It means the people we hold closest to our hearts, and those we move to the other side of the street to avoid, and those we have the most trouble recognizing Christ in. It’s kind of messy. But it’s who we are.
Being a saint isn’t about being perfect. Even our book Holy Women, Holy Men, the tome outlining all the saints and their feast days says thus: “In these saints, we encounter not models of absolute perfection but men and women whose lives, with all their diversity of gifts and graces, were reshaped by God’s redemptive activity.” Saints are tasked with a far greater expectation than being nice, or good or patient. They live into the inspiring but often far more difficult ordering of life modeled on Jesus. They throw off the weight of ‘shoulds’ and ‘ought tos’ and offer their life as a way of dismantling oppression; of healing for a broken and often hope-diminished world. They live into the beautiful but ultimately very challenging words that we read today in our gospel, the Beatitudes. Mercy, justice, peace, righteousness—for many of us, these are words to inspire, but not to live out in a day to day way. We are too busy. We don’t know how to do it. There are others who would be better at it than we are. Honestly, we would kind of rather laugh with the sinners.
The Good News is that we have already taken that first step towards being part of that communion. In our baptism and confirmation, we have already acknowledged what we have to do to live into the model of overwhelming love and mercy that has been set before us. In our baptismal promises, we offer nothing less to God than our whole selves, the good, the bad and the oftentimes downright ugly. We never promise to be saints—there are no saints in our lectionary who set out to become a saint from the get go—but we promise to do our very best with God’s help to align our lives and livelihoods and relationships with God’s will. In those promises, we begin to understand just a taste of the saint’s life—that we are asked to give up our gods of self-interest; our slavery to wealth and material riches; our need to be completely independent and free of responsibility for our brothers and sisters. Our promises that we made, and that we will renew today when we baptize Ryan into the household of God are radical. And they are tough. But what aligning our lives with Christ means, submerging our will into the will and love of the One Living God—is that we live for God, and not for ourselves. It means that never will we be alone in this world or the next. It means that death has no dominion over us and our love. It means that we are freed, liberated, from the cares which tie us down, but which are also ultimately transient, temporary. The language might seem radical, but that’s because the intent is as well: in baptism we die to sin, and in baptism we are adopted as Christ’s own, God’s own.
As God’s own, we are also included, ourselves, in the communion of saints. That’s right, laughing sinners and all, we are redeemed into the gathering of those who have modeled their own struggles and successes in terms of living out their own baptismal covenant. Their stories, their lives, are no less important than the lives we read about every Wednesday. As we read the necrology, those who have died from this parish community, we not only remember them, but we celebrate all those who have lived and worked and loved as part of this faith community. They were not all perfect. But perfection is not a requirement for sainthood. Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote that “The saints are the sinners who keep on going.” Our saints have gone ahead, and their prayers for us keep us company on this journey, so that we may never be alone.
So it is into all of this mess of saints and journeys and adoption and death and life that we baptize Ryan Palumbo this morning. His parents and godparents will make promises on his behalf, and we too will promise that we will support him and his family in this crazy faith journey throughout his life. We do that because we are the communion of saints. Within each person in this community, Ryan will find a piece of God’s presence. Within each person and experience within this community, Ryan will discover the breadth of how God can work within us and through us—often despite our best efforts to not cooperate. Ryan will discover a mantle of saints surrounding him, those who have died, and whose stories we tell and memories will remain; the saints who have moved away, but have changed us and this community by their presence; and by you. Each one of you will in some way impact this child, offering a story of how faith can be manifested, nurtured and given freely and generously to all who encounter him. He will be Christ’s own, and will laugh and cry as needed, and not because he is deemed either a sinner or saint. We are all both, sinners called to be saints.
I am going to do a little bit of show and tell for you right now. This is my ordination stole to the priesthood. Priests in the Episcopal tradition are ordained twice, first as a deacon, second as a priest. For my first ordination, I wore a very old stole, handed down and belonging to my sponsoring priest, then rector of St John’s in Beverly Farms. It was old silk, a little discolored around the edges, a little frayed here and there. It had been worn by priests and deacons alike for many many years, and once you put it on, you could feel the weight of their presence—their fears, their joys, their prayer-soaked hope surrounding you. For my ordination to the priesthood, I had this stole made. It is made from pieces of fabric from about 25 to 30 friends and family members, both living and dead. The only image I truly wanted was to have the communion of saints surround me as I took my vows to the priesthood. It is the handiwork of saints and sinners alike. Men and women from all walks of life. Family members and folks who are closer than family members. To be honest, there is even a piece of a pair of red khakis on here from a Senior Warden in the Episcopal parish on Fisher’s Island in here. Saints come in all sorts of ways.
The communion of saints does not end with death, and does not extend itself to only the good. It is wide and broad, but it demands much from us. Ryan and his family are about to make promises to us and to God that they will engage fully in trying to align their lives with Christ’s teachings. All of you who have been baptized or confirmed have also made those promises, and we will reaffirm them together today. Those who have gone before us, have also made those promises as we celebrate them on this All Saints’ Day, and both we and they will be the mantle of witnesses around Ryan’s shoulders. We give thanks for those who are and have been the mantle of witnesses around YOUR shoulders. We will bring our laughter and tears, knowing that both are held sacred, and we will teach him and each other that he is beloved of God, we are beloved of God, and learn along with him the lifelong lesson of how to be a saint.